NEW DELHI – In the deadliest leftist attack in India, Maoist rebels on Tuesday killed 75 police personnel in the central state of Chhattisgarh, in the process making a mockery of New Delhi’s recent claims that its strong-arm tactics against Maoist strongholds across north and eastern India were paying dividends.
A government paramilitary force – mostly from the Central Reserve Protection Force – was involved in flushing-out operations when it was attacked in the thick forests of Dantewada district by about 500 armed rebels.
Interior Minister P Chidambaram, who is spearheading “Operation Green Hunt” against the rebels, said, “Something has gone drastically wrong. They seemed to have walked into a trap set by
the Naxalites [Maoists]. Every soldier on the patrol was either killed or wounded.”
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the incident “horrific” while Home Secretary Gopal K Pillai said on Wednesday the rebels “will pay a high price” and be hunted down.
Given this massive reversal, there is little chance now that New Delhi will be able to negotiate any kind of truce with the emboldened Maoists. The Maoists believe in armed struggle to overthrow the state and bring about socio-economic change, especially in the northeastern and central eastern states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh.
The stated goal of the Maoists is to overthrow the state by 2050, an ideal that is widely dismissed as rhetoric.
The massive military offensive to eliminate Maoists was launched a few months ago in the forests of Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Orissa. About 100,000 troops have been deployed, with another 20,000 more to be sent in the coming weeks.
Orissa has rich mineral deposits, including 70% of all of India’s bauxite reserves (the sixth-largest deposit in the world), 90% of India’s chrome ore and nickel and 24% of its coal. But tribals and Maoists inhabit much of this mineral-rich land. Mining companies – Indian and multinational – have been lining up to extract this wealth. But tribal agitations and Maoist violence have been blocking their ambitions.
Today, 40% of the top 50 mineral-rich districts in India are affected by Naxalite violence, with repeated attacks on any symbol of authority, both private and public, including mining sites. Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh are the worst-affected states.
About 10,000 people, including police, rebels and civilians, have been killed over the past two decades in Maoist-related unrest. In February, at least 25 policemen were killed in West Bengal when Maoists attacked a camp. In March 2007, the Maoists were blamed for an attack that killed 55 policemen, also in Chhattisgarh.
Home Secretary Pillai said New Delhi’s resolve had now been further strengthened and that “retreating is not an option”, although he ruled out using air power (armored helicopters) against the Maoists.
The latest attack will, however, call into question New Delhi’s approach of using sheer force against the Maoists, whom New Delhi calls “the biggest threat to India’s internal security” – even more so than disputed Kashmir, where for decades India and Pakistan have squared off, at times even briefly going to war.
The latest security action against the Maoists followed an official assessment last year that the Naxalites were “bent on violence and mayhem against the state and the people” and called for the government to “squarely meet” the threat.
New Delhi argues that the Maoists are not ideologically inspired to fight for the poor and kill foes in cold blood.
India has sought advice from United States counter-insurgency personnel who have been involved in fighting the Taliban and jihadis in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas.
The regular defense forces have been used only for logistical support as the government has ruled out their direct involvement in taking on the leftists. This could now change.
Critics of the government’s approach say that a more political and humane policy is needed in handling the rebels and that there should be more focus on economic and social development of the deprived population. Chidambaram has been castigated for his inflexible and hardline views.
The government has also been criticized for equating Maoists with terrorists. It is pointed out that the rebels attack mostly symbols of state power (property and personnel) and not soft targets or civilians, as is the case with jihadis in Indian-administered Kashmir.
In June last year, New Delhi labeled the Naxalite group, the Communist Party of India (Maoist), or CPI (M), a terrorist organization, putting it in the same league as other banned outfits such as Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Toiba – accused of carrying out the massive Mumbai attack in November 2008 – and the now-decimated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka.
The spread of the Maoist insurgency is so vast across swathes of India’s mineral-rich states that it is most improbable that it could be defeated by force alone. The might of the US military and its allies have not been able to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan after nine years. As in that country, the Maoists have strong grassroots support.
The Naxalites are also known to be seeking alliances with secessionists groups, especially northeast insurgents in Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram, in a bid to expand their influence and gain a pan-Indian presence.
They have already established links with leftists in Nepal and LTTE fighters – now that their battle is over – are involved in training the Maoists. Maoist rebels in Nepal overthrew the world’s last Hindu monarchy and negotiated their way into government within a decade.
India’s stellar economic growth over the past decade has given rise to a consumer class of 50-100 million people, but more than 800 million people have been left behind, the majority of whom live on less than US$2 a day. These impoverished people, especially farmers, landless laborers and tribal minorities in remote areas, are the prime recruits of the Maoists.
As the bodies mount, there might be some in the corridors of power who question whether the use of an iron fist addresses these socio-economic problems that fuel the insurgency.